Opinion: Intent of Second Amendment includes responsibilities as well as rights

By Jonathan Hepworth, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Feb 1st, 2013 @ 1:34pm

Editor's note: The following article is in response to an opinion article posted earlier in the week about the Second Amendment being violated. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of ksl.com, its management or ownership.

SALT LAKE CITY — With every right comes responsibility. When the Founders of our nation chose to include the right to bear arms in our Constitution, they recognized responsibilities that limited its exercise. Far from violating the intent of the Second Amendment, restrictions on the kind of arms citizens can bear are part of the responsibilities associated with this right.

Some gun advocates have suggested the Founding Fathers might entrust today’s public with the most advanced weaponry — the kind needed to adequately defend against the police and military forces of an oppressive government.

The kind of tyranny the colonists faced, however, was different from that feared today. Those who promote the right to bear all types of arms also forget the Founding Fathers provided a more powerful weapon than grenades and armored vehicles: the ballot box.

The American Colonists had no representation in Parliament and were not able to have a say in taxation or public policy. In order to abolish the oppressive government they were under, they were forced to rebel. The costs of liberty were tremendous, and the Founders resolved to make another revolution unnecessary by instituting the best government possible.


For a decade the country was run by the Articles of Confederation, which severely limited the power of the federal government. This system proved unwieldy, however, leading to 13 weak states that were no match for the mighty powers of Europe.

The Constitution of 1787 strengthened the Federal Government. It set up a system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and regularly scheduled elections to ensure that no one person wielded too much power over this revamped central government.

Even with these safeguards, some opposed the new Constitution — including Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams — suggesting further restrictions were needed. James Madison accordingly introduced 12 amendments, 10 of which were ratified in 1791.

These 10 amendments — collectively known as the Bill of Rights — included free speech, trial by jury and the rights to worship, assemble peaceably and bear arms. However, each of these rights had responsibilities and limitations.

With the right to trial by jury, citizens have the responsibility of jury duty. With the right of free speech comes the responsibility to not create a “clear and present danger” with such speech — in other words, no one can falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater because of the panic it would provoke.

What are the responsibilities of bearing arms? Some suggest it is to have means available to abolish a tyrannical government. The means to abolish such governments already exist, however: open elections and an active citizenry.

What happens, though, when those in power are clearly working against the interests of those out of power? The Founding Fathers demonstrated that those in the minority have no right to destroy the government of the majority.

In 1794, several farmers in western Pennsylvania rose up in rebellion against a tax on whiskey. George Washington led an army against them and dispatched the rebellion. Laws were to be upheld until the time that a majority of the people should desire to change them.

Both sides of the gun issue should lower their rhetoric and listen to one another. Neither side wishes to see innocent blood shed. By emphasizing similarities rather than differences, both sides might be able to create solutions that work for all.

The idea that the Founding Fathers wanted the public to own military-grade weapons for use against the government simply has no historical support. Additionally, while the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller upheld individual possession of firearms, it also held there were limits to this right. Justice Antonin Scalia admitted that small firearms could do nothing against tanks and planes, but the Supreme Court could not change its interpretation of the Second Amendment to include more powerful weapons.

While the Second Amendment does not protect the right of citizens to own any weapon for any purpose, gun advocates do not need the most advanced weaponry to keep their right to bear arms or prevent a tyrannical government. Instead, gun owners should be proactive in exercising their First Amendment rights of petition, assembly and speech by working within the representative framework established by our nation’s Founders.

Additionally, both sides of the gun issue should lower their rhetoric and listen to one another. Neither side wishes to see innocent blood shed. By emphasizing similarities rather than differences, both sides might be able to create solutions that work for all. By leading out in civil dialogue rather than defiance, gun owners could convince a majority of Americans that most citizens choose to exercise their right to bear arms responsibly.

Jonathan D. Hepworth is a native of Utah. He received his Master's degree in History at Clemson University and now lives in Athens, Georgia.

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